The National Transportation Safety Board is attempting to put pressure on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to mandate blood alcohol monitoring systems in new vehicles as soon as possible. We already spoke about this when we covered the beloved Biden-approved infrastructure bill that seeks to mandate “impaired driving prevention technology” earlier this year. Further pressure is being applied to NHTSA following the release of an official report regarding a fatal crash in California in early 2021.
Specifically, the crash involved a drunk driver in a Dodge Journey SUV on New Year’s Day. The Journey crossed the center line and engaged in a head-on smash with a Ford F-150 pickup truck. Both drivers were killed along with seven other occupants aged between 6 and 15. According to the report, the Dodge driver’s blood alcohol level was three times California’s legal limit, and traces of marijuana were found in his system. At the time of impact, the Journey was hauling between 88 and 98 miles per hour. This sounds like it’s all about to get very serious.
“We need NHTSA to act. We see the numbers,” NTSB Chairman Jennifer Homendy said. “We need to make sure that we’re doing all we can to save lives.” Apparently, the NTSB has been pushing NHTSA to explore alcohol monitoring technology since 2012. “The faster the technology is implemented the more lives that will be saved,” she said.
Last year’s bipartisan infrastructure bill saw congress ask NHTSA to mandate automakers install alcohol monitoring systems within three years, this includes vehicle deactivation technology (aka “killswitch”) to keep you from deviating. The legislation didn’t outline a technical path to monitoring drivers, only that the system must “passively monitor” you.
It’s going to be the type of system that checks in every time you key the ignition, certainly using biometrics, and cameras to understand when you deviate from normal, or when you’ve crossed an alcohol threshold. With the growth of self-driving, and semi-self-driving technologies many cars already have in-dash cameras pointed at the driver to monitor their awareness levels.
Since 2008 NHTSA has been working with 17 automakers on a project called The Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety. Its stated purpose is to “explore the feasibility, the potential benefits of, and the potential challenges associated with a more widespread use of in-vehicle technology to prevent alcohol-impaired driving.”
There’s no breathalyzer apparatus or anything like that, the vehicle’s alcohol monitoring system detects the level in your body, using either a touch-based approach which checks the alcohol concentration in your skin, or a breath-based approach which measures the alcohol concentration in your exhaled breath, based on speed, accuracy, and precision. These systems have been out in the world testing since 2013 and officially entered the commercial fleet market last year.
NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) indicates 38,824 people were killed while driving in 2020, 11,654 of those deaths were alcohol-related, representing 30% of the total. For what it’s worth, NHTSA’s 2020 Crash Report states the totals for alcohol-impaired driving are “based on rounded estimates for each month.”
Would you drive a vehicle with this kind of surveillance technology?